Emma Thompson, Mindy Kaling, Hugh Dancy, John Lithgow, Denis O’Hare, Reid Scott
FilmInk rates movies out of $20 — the score indicates the amount we believe a ticket to the movie to be worth
…a solid, frequently charming and funny romp and for Thompson’s performance alone is very much worth the privilege of your time.
The revered institution of the American late night talk show has been a reflection of the cultural zeitgeist for decades. From Johnny Carson’s quip factory to David Letterman’s snark tsunami to the current “woke” trends of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, these entertainment institutions have always had a finger on the pulse of social mores and contemporary politics. It’s fertile ground for a light drama comedy, and for the most part Late Night utilises the setting well.
Late Night, written and starring Mindy Kaling, posits a sort of alternate reality version of the aforementioned televisual giants, a show hosted by a middle-aged British woman, Late Night with Katherine Newbury (Emma Thompson). Despite being a titan in the biz, Katherine has been losing ratings – and relevance – for about a decade when we first meet her. She hires inexperienced but plucky comedy writer, Molly Patel (Mindy Kaling), mainly so people will stop claiming she hates women. Molly has a tough road ahead of her, facing a disdainful, white male writer’s room and a boss who barely knows she exists. However, when network exec Caroline Morton (Amy Ryan) lets Katherine know she’s about to get the axe, Newbury realises something has to change and decides to do for the American public what she’s never done before: tell the truth.
Structurally, Late Night apes the beats of your typical romcom, however the “romance” in question is actually a platonic relationship between Molly and Katherine. Emma Thompson plays the stern and vaguely misanthropic talk show host with sublime skill, offering barbed wit and genuine pathos in equal measure, and every second she’s on screen is a joy to watch. Mindy Kaling is not quite as successful, with her character coming off a little too naive to be credible, but she’s always an agreeable screen presence and exudes warmth and charm. John Lithgow also shines bright in a small but vital role as Katherine’s much older husband, and proves once again why he’s such a great talent.
In terms of the story, Late Night veers occasionally too twee, particularly when it makes some well-intentioned and laudable but rather ham-fisted points about diversity; although it nails a number of beats dealing with ageism and sexism. Ultimately, it’s a light, occasionally frothy film, that does a good job of reflecting the concerns of its time and gives an underrated actress the chance to shine in a role that would normally go to a male actor like Hugh Laurie. Late Night is never particularly revelatory or surprising, but it’s a solid, frequently charming and funny romp and for Thompson’s performance alone is very much worth the privilege of your time.